Susan Steen

Susan Steen

“Should be” will always be a long road.” ― S. Kelley Harrell

The list was long of things I needed and wanted to accomplish. I stopped to visit with a friend, and quickly, I heard the voice in my head shaming me, “Susan, you should be working on that list.”

Heavier than the stuffed suitcase that accompanies me on most trips, the word weighed me down. It was almost suffocating me with its power. Should: used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.

There will always be a list of things we need or want to accomplish, even things we must accomplish (paying bills, feeding the dog), but when “should” comes into the sentence, there is, as Harrell says, a long road — of guilt, of questioning, of uncertainty. Isn’t it time to let go?

This is an article about mental health, controlling behaviors, guilt and freedom. All of that from one word: “should.” That is a powerful word right there. It can destroy marriages, and it can convince a person of their lack of worth. It can land a person in a therapist’s office for years, untangling the strands that keep us tied in knots. None of that has to happen, though, and you and I can begin today to take away the power it has been holding.

Here are some of the messages we send (controlling behavior) using this one word:

  • · Good boys and girls should make their beds.
  • · A good husband/wife/partner should cook dinner/keep a clean house/have a well-manicured lawn.
  • · If you are really a good friend you should be available when I need you.
  • · Good people should be in church on Sunday morning.

Do you feel it? That heaviness that comes with who we should be and what we should do can be overwhelming as we sometimes try to get anything right.

Chances are, you’ve told your children they should behave a certain way, with the hidden message that he or she who follows the “shoulds” will be better loved and cared for. But what about when they don’t meet one of the “shoulds”?

If you become angry that they didn’t behave the way you thought they should, they equate love with performance, measuring up. We do this every day, in so many places.

Our favorite coffee shop should have this or that on hand because it’s what we want. The grocery store should carry this brand, and the restaurant should offer this service. Statements such as “My husband should have done this (to make me happy),” or “My wife should have known I would need those clothes washed” are a constant source of critique that isn’t helpful.

Add to the messages we send to other people (and they send to us) the ones we send ourselves, and you have a recipe for plummeting self-esteem and exploding depression.

  • · I should like art (all well-rounded people do)
  • · My house should be clean and organized (all good people keep things that way)
  • · I should be saving more money (all rich people do)
  • · I should eat less, drink less, exercise more (all good people have these things under control)
  • · I shouldn’t cry so much (only weird people do that)

Guilt is all over this. Guilt that we didn’t measure up to someone else’s expectations of us, and worse that we didn’t measure up to our own expectations of ourselves.

In “Guilt and Children”, Jane Bybee discusses the role guilt plays in mental health, in particular causing depression. When we measure or feel measured by “shoulds”, we can feel enormous guilt, and before we know it depression creeps in with it and is as difficult to remove as the five extra pounds in my overstuffed suitcase.

In a 2012 study in Manchester (United Kingdom, not Tennessee), they learned that “those who suffer from depression have brains that are more prone to guilt than those who have never suffered from depression.” A cocktail of “shoulds” and a person prone to being heavy with guilt can basically guarantee mental health problems with depression.

Here’s how it goes: you have messages of how you should be that leave you feeling guilty for not measuring up, which then leads to depression. (Specifically, guilt in childhood brings depression in adulthood, so consider how you handle your messaging with kids today.) How, then, do we move from guilt and depression to freedom?

1. Recognize that SHOULD is based on someone else’s expectation of you, not your own, and possibly not even what is reasonable.

2. Decide if an item is something you WANT to do, and keep that messaging in your thoughts and speech.

3. Take a minute to talk to yourself when you hear SHOULD from someone else or from yourself, and remind yourself that negative words (should and ought to) might bring about desired results, but it will come at a high price (stress, anxiety, depression). Change the verbiage and watch your response change, too.

a. If someone says, “You should have gone to the concert!” Tell yourself (and them), it’s great they enjoyed it, but you had other things you wanted to do. Maybe next time.

b. When your friends who love to read say, “I can’t believe you haven’t read that book. You really should read more.” You can either feel obligated to go to the library and find the book, or you can respond, “I don’t know that I should. I don’t enjoy reading the way you do. Movies, though...that’s my thing!”

If you and I live our lives based on what anyone else thinks we should be or should do (unless it’s actually a requirement like paying bills), we are setting ourselves up for a very long road of guilt, anxiety, and depression. Freedom and better mental health come when we stop the messaging being sent to us and change the narrative we’re believing about our value.

If you want to share this article with a friend, that would be great, but I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should. Only you can decide that!

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.

Recommended for you